My comments on Harvard Sq “Curious George” redevelopment proposal (One Response)

Below are the comments I sent to the Cambridge Historical Commission regarding the Harvard Square Collection redevelopment proposal that will have its fifth hearing tonight (2/16).

Dear Mr. King and members of the Historical Commission,

I regret that due to longstanding travel plans I will not be able to attend tonight’s special meeting of the Historical Commission. I have attended all the prior hearings on Case 3678 (1-7 & 9-11 JKF St. and 18-20 Brattle St., a.k.a. The Harvard Square Collection) and would have liked to be able to hear the Commission’s comments and the public’s testimony on the amended designs. In my role as a city councillor, I have received many emails on this case, all of them opposed to various aspects of the redevelopment plan. I did attend the presentation that the proponent (Equity One) gave last week to the Harvard Square Business Association, so I have seen the latest designs.

Over the past several months I have given this proposal a great deal of thought. I have walked around the site countless times to study with fresh eyes the three buildings and their context. I have discussed the proposed redevelopment with architects, merchants, residents, and Harvard students, and I have listened closely to all perspectives. I also have reviewed the guidelines that govern the Harvard Square Conservation District upon which you must base your decision.

So I do not offer this opinion lightly. I continue to believe that Equity One’s infill proposal with its roof pavilion and terrace is inappropriate for such a historically and visually significant site. Further, I feel there is not enough potential benefit to the public or to the City to justify the two-plus years of havoc that a demolition and infill construction project of this ambitious scale on the Square’s central and most congested corner would wreck, not to mention the displacement of some two dozen tenants in the three buildings and the sustained disruption to pedestrian and traffic circulation. With soaring rents, high turnover, and a speculative run-up in property values, the health and appeal of the Harvard Square commercial ecosystem are already in a precarious state; I fear the area may never recover from the onslaught of this redevelopment. Harvard Square is Cambridge’s original and signature commercial district, and this project represents a huge gamble on its future vitality and viability. Simply put, the stakes are too high to determine that this redevelopment project, even in its current amended form, is in the public’s best interest.

Among the most persuasive and enlightening comments I have read are the recent communications you received from longtime Planning Board member and former Abbot building tenant Hugh Russell and Harvard art history professor and Harvard Square resident Suzanne Blier. Before reading Mr. Russell’s letter I had not fully grasped the extent to which the Abbot building will have to be structurally eviscerated in order to accommodate the open floor plan envisioned by the developer. As you know the Abbot is a building that hundreds of residents recently petitioned, unsuccessfully, the Commission to consider designating as a landmark. However in declining to conduct a landmark study, the Commission pledged to treat the Abbot with the same level of care as if landmarked. Yet the very essence of what makes the Abbot so significant and prominent a visual landmark is its flatiron profile above the more diminutive Corcoran building’s neighborly embrace. The proposed infill will subsume the Abbot’s distinctive profile, instantly obscuring what had long made it a “landmark” in the public’s estimation.

I am also concerned that the Corcoran, a structurally sound building with its own unique historic provenance, would become collateral damage in the proponent’s scheme to transfer floor area to the roof in order to house what is described as a “high-end destination restaurant” with a private terrace.

After seeing at the view shed analysis submitted by Professor Blier on behalf of Our Harvard Square, I walked around the Square, looking at how the rooftops are used and arranged. In fact, in contrast to the architecturally significant treatments at the tops of the buildings in Harvard Yard, the roofs of the commercial buildings in the Square are best ignored — unless one is interested in HVAC equipment, fire escapes, and elevator head houses. And that’s as it should be in a commercial district; one wants visitors’ attention focused on the storefronts and the ground-level attractions — and on safely navigating the Square’s narrow sidewalks and the heavy vehicular traffic at crosswalks. The unprecedented addition of a large rooftop structure with the potential for outdoor dining until midnight or later will introduce new light, activity and noise that will command the public’s attention from many angles, detracting and distracting from the rich fabric of the streetscape it looms over. This substantial and active-use rooftop addition will be detrimental to the historic character of the Square and to the quality of life for residents of JFK Street. Securing a high-end restaurant appears critical to the financial viability of the entire redevelopment, and the roof plan seems to be driving the inappropriate design decisions on the lower floors that have aroused such public outcry. We cannot allow the top floor design to render all that we prize below more collateral damage. From a place-making and equity standpoint, is it in keeping with the City’s values to allow an exclusive rooftop space to become what defines the Harvard Square experience in the eyes of the public?

I do appreciate that you have a very difficult decision before you, and that in extending this case to a fifth public hearing you have been proceeding with the degree of caution warranted by this flagship site. I humbly ask that you use your statutory discretion to send the proponent back to the drawing board to bring forward a design that is more respectful of the past, present and future of Harvard Square’s inimitable architectural and cultural history and context.

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    Jan Devereux
    City Councillor
    Cambridge, MA